AIDS fight: India, Inc. tests negative
TIMES NEWS NETWORK[ MONDAY, DECEMBER 01, 2003 12:31:33 AM ]
MUMBAI: Harshada Patil, a deputy manager looking after social
welfare at Bharat Petroleum Corporation (BPCL), is blunt in
her description of the attitude towards HIV/AIDS of some
senior corporate managers.
"They aren't really concerned because they say if some
people get AIDS and die, there are plenty of other people to
take their place."
According to this mindset, Indian companies, and not just
public sector undertakings, are already hugely overstaffed,
and anyway, if there's so much unemployment in the country
that hundreds are willing to trek from Bihar to Mumbai for
some measly railway jobs, what sort of impact can HIV/AIDS
really have on Indian companies?
Such views should not be taken as an indication of BPCL's
actual HIV/AIDS policy. In fact, the PSU giant has one of the
most comprehensive corporate HIV/AIDS programmes in the
country. BPCL has run extensive awareness programmes for its
employees both on its prevention and to sensitise them about
working with HIV positive co-workers.
Ms Patil says there is no question of such workers being asked
to leave. On the contrary, full support and counselling is
given to them and their families. She adds that the company's
health scheme will cover the costs of their treatment even
extending to anti-retroviral treatment - which few other
companies do. And outside its own workforce, BPCL conducts
HIV/AIDS prevention programmes in
communities surrounding some of its main factories.
Few other Indian companies may go as far as BPCL, but there's
no doubt that the level of HIV/AIDS awareness is far higher in
the corporate world than it was as recently as two years back.
On World AIDS Day then, looking for companies with proper
HIV/AIDS programmes, only a few could be found like Mahindra
Larsen & Toubro, Tata Group companies, Bajaj Auto, Glaxo
and SAIL. Now, many others like Cadbury, Castrol, Escorts,
Eveready, Godrej, Gujarat Ambuja, Hero Honda, IndianOil,
Marico, Modicare, Mukand, Ranbaxy and Reliance can be added.
At a more macro level, the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII)
has tied up with the Global Business Coalition for HIV/AIDS (GBC)
to increase awareness of this issue in the industry. The GBC
also recognised the efforts of one company in particular,
Tisco, with a special international award for its
comprehensive programme, which stretches from its workforce to
the communities surrounding
Jamshedpur and even truckers bringing products into the city.
And if all this wasn't enough, the grant by the Bill &
Melinda Gates Foundation of $100m (later doubled to $200m),
which was announced in person by Bill Gates in India , focused
the industry's attention on HIV/AIDS in a way that nothing
else could have. Corporate conferences have been held on
HIV/AIDS, corporate heads deliver solemn speeches about it at
the click of a Powerpoint resentation and as one NGO worker in
the field notes, a paragraph on the company's HIV/AIDS policy
has become almost mandatory in most annual reports.
"When I started in this field, I had to really persuade
companies to let us conduct awareness programmes," says
Nidhi Dubey, programme officer on workplace interventions at
Avert, a joint project of the National AIDS Control
Organisation (NACO), USAID and the Government of Maharashtra.
"Today, we have lots of companies calling up asking us to
So what's the problem? Only this: The programmes may be
excellent, but the reasons for their implementation still lack
something. Talk to companies and it becomes clear that
overwhelmingly they see HIV/AIDS as a welfare issue, a problem
on the lines of drug or alcohol addiction. HIV/AIDS comes
under the corporate social responsibility (CSR) area,
something that its generally agreed that companies should be
doing - but with the unspoken corollary, that
its not imperative, because it doesn't affect the bottomline.
"Companies aren't really taking responsibility for
HIV/AIDS because they still don't see it as something that
could affect their productivity," says Ms Dubey. It's why
the people actually dealing with the issues in companies are
always the welfare officers and rarely anyone more senior -
outside CII conferences, that is.
The idea that HIV/AIDS does not actually impact the bottomline
is somewhat short-sighted, as proven by international
experience. HIV/AIDS has been recognised to be a productivity
issue since it targets exactly the most productive sections of
society - sexually-active adults in the age group of 18-45.
Estimates by the United Nations Development Programme suggest
that HIV/AIDS has reduced the annual growth rate of GDP per
capita around the world, by nearly 0.06% below what it could
have been in the absence of the disease.
In the most severely affected areas like parts of sub-Saharan
Africa , where nearly 8.8% of the population has the disease,
the reduction in annual growth rate may be nearly 0.15%. In
some industries, like South Africa 's mining industry, it's
been estimated that as many as 30,000 miners are positive, out
of a total workforce of 100,000.
Multinationals in South Africa are reported to be hiring three
people to fill any post that becomes vacant in order to ensure
that there's always someone to do the job. Add on the effects
of manhours lost in taking care of sick people and less
quantifiable issues like the social problems of huge number of
families losing the main breadwinners, and HIV/AIDS clearly
emerges as a serious productivity issue.
If Indian companies are still to see it this way, it's partly
because of lack of data. India is now estimated to be the
country with the second-largest population of HIV positive
people and there are plenty of projections for how bad it
could get - one of the few work-related estimates done by a
doctor at Tata Tea suggests that in ten years time 2,280m
manhours could be lost because of the disease.
But there is still little hard data on the workplace impact of
the disease, to some extent a result of the strategy chosen
early on in the campaign against HIV/AIDS in India of focusing
on the most high-risk groups.
"People have mostly looked at groups like truck drivers
and commercial sex workers, but not the workplace,"
points out VR Jathar, director, CSR at the Bombay Chamber of
Commerce and Industry (BCCI). That's why when the BCCI decided
to take up this issue, one of the first things it did was to
commission a study from PriceWaterhouse simply to see how many
companies have HIV/AIDS
policies at all, and general corporate attitudes to the issue.
The study, conducted across HRD managers, welfare officials
and some union officials as well, is yet to be completed, but
initials reports make for sombre reading
Despite the high-profile names backing HIV/AIDS as an issue, a
very large part of the corporate world is still to wake up to
it. "35% of respondents did not consider HIV/AIDS to be
an area of concern," says Mr Jathar. "31% had a
wait-and-watch policy." He stresses that there are
positive signs. "Over 60% want to get information on
HIV/AIDS, and most people surveyed said they were willing to
accept HIV positive people in the workplace." But, the
fact remains that so
many years into the epidemic, over half the companies surveyed
had no real support for HIV positive workers.
In addition, it should be kept in mind that corporate efforts
of whatever kind do not touch on the huge informal workforce.
The informal labour in industries ranging from cinema or
diamond-cutting to the migrant labour in agro-based industries
like sugar are even more at risk than the formal workforce,
but HIV/AIDS initiatives here are close to zero and likely to
remain that way since no one will take responsibility for
Despite this lack of hard data, there's no dearth of anecdotal
evidence of the impact the disease is having. Managers like
BPCL's Ms Patil who have dealt with the issue are generally
frank about the incidence of the disease. "Its becoming
increasingly common right across our workforce," says Ms
Patil. The problem has always been that the company doesn't
know for sure, usually because the employee doesn't either,
until they fall sick and go to a company-linked
hospital for a check-up. "We tend to find out at the same
time as the employee does," says Ms Patil.
Typically the disease has been thought of as impacting mostly
blue-collar workers, but increasingly its hitting managerial
levels as well. "Real data is even harder to get in this
case, but we are getting reports of more white collar workers
who are infected," says Mr Jathar. A welfare officer at a
company who asks not to be identified gives the example of a
young manager in a regional office who was recently diagnosed
as positive - along with his wife and children. Cases like
this are why the company, which gave automatic counselling to
employees diagnosed positive, now gives it to family members
The situation isn't entirely grim. The increasing number of
HIV/AIDS initiatives is encouraging and more organisations
like BPCL are now focusing on workplace interventions.
Sensitisation programmes, whatever the motives behind them,
are proven to have a positive impact. Ms Patil reports that
BPCL's programmes have raised awareness of HIV/AIDS to the
level that employees are now well aware that its not a highly
contagious disease and that there is no threat of working
alongside HIV positive employees. "In the few cases we
know, there has been a lot of support given to the
employees," she says.
All that needs to change is for companies to add increased
emphasis to these efforts by treating them not as welfare
initiatives, but ones needed for the company's future. As Mr
Jathar says it's just a question of long-term planning.
"At the moment its probably true that in the short term
HIV/AIDS will not have much of an impact on a company's
performance. But in the long run, as the situation becomes
worse and rates rise, it is bound to happen. Companies need to
start planning for that from today